Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Setting The Stage

How many times have you picked up a book, only to have every scene happen between talking heads in an empty room? There is no past, no future, there is no background, no scenery, no life - nothing and no one exists outside of the main characters. And for all the character description you're given, you're not even sure they have bodies.

"Setting the Stage" is a technique I learned about from, of all things, Archie Comics. I loved Archie Comics. And one of the things I loved most about them was when things went on in the background.

In my particular favorite, and I don't even remember the main story now, the school janitor began investigating a slow leak in a classroom ceiling. He returned with a ladder, and found the leak had become a trickle. He returned with a mop, only to find the trickle had become a broad stream. He slammed the door shut desperately to keep the water at bay, but the door whooshed open as a tidal wave of water carried him off down the hallway. None of the main characters noticed.

It was great. It was simple. It made the world they lived in seem more interesting. Now the main characters weren't actors on a sterile stage, they were part of a universe.

And that was the purpose.

Many time when we're telling stories, what begins on paper as a couple of characters exchanging boring but necessary information needs to be enlivened. We need to give depth, resonance, show those coveted "telling details," sneak in some symbolism, or distract from a crucial clue and plant a red herring. Sometimes, we just need to make it clear that our characters are in a different room of the house.

That's where these details come in.

I once wrote a short story where a female character made coffee for herself and her husband while they had a difficult conversation about his deceased first wife. The conversation began when she set his mug in front of him, and throughout the rest of the scene they interacted with that coffee in the same way you and I would - they looked into it to avoid each others' eyes, they blew on it, they drank it, they toyed with the handles, they ignored it as they got to the meat of the conversation, and then they went back to it when they reached a stalemate. And when she realized that their conversation was as cold as their coffee, she got up, threw the dregs of her mug down the sink, and walked out.

It was so simple: loaded with sensory details, rife with ambiguity and meaning, and elegantly showing the passage of time - all without once mentioning their awkward pauses or looking at a clock. I had done it by accident, really; simply recording their conversation was as boring to me, the writer, as it would have been to an audience. But giving them coffee worked. It worked because none of us in real life sit and speak without moving. People fidget. And life goes on in the background.

Can this technique be overdone? Sure. When you're trying to move the pace along quickly, to get to that all important show-down or fight scene or the hero's declaraton of love, you don't want to include many of these tidbits because they can slow the story down. But when you want to slow the story down, or when you can spare the time to give the characters and the scene added depth, or when you simply want to misdirect our attention, give it a shot. Your audience, and your characters, will thank you for it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

3 Rules of Writing

Someone once said "There are three rules of successful writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are."

Well, no offense to whomever it was, but I don't think he was familiar with writing fiction. The three rules of fiction-writing are as follows:

1) Good Plot

2) Good Characters

3) Good Writing

That's it.
They sound so sound simple, don't they? But you'd be surprised at how many people don't know them, flat-out ignore them, or even consider them beneath them - and then wonder why their work doesn't sell.

Shall I tell you why they're important? Let's start with the second one first.

2) Good Characters.

Any good story must have a character - a hero - that your audience identifies with in some way. Your audience picks up this book, or watches this movie, in order to ecape their own dreary, hum-drum life and put on somebody else's life for a change. They want to know what it's like to be a super-spy, or a Victorian maiden, or a battle-hardened warrior. They want to live, vicariously, this other life - and the way they do that is through your main character. To allow your audience to get inside that character's head and identify with him or her, there must be something about this main character that lets the audience say: "That's just like me! I've felt like that/know someone like that/ been in that situation before!" Your main character can be the worst super-villain on the planet, but if he's constantly getting teased by the (so-called) good guys, then that puts us bang on his side - because we've all been there, we've all been teased and humiliated by someone. And that doesn't mean that your characters always have to be likeable - after all, we know that we ourselves are not always likeable. We do and say mean, stupid things, and hope that others will forgive us for it (or not!). It just means that your main characters have to be interesting, understandable, and in some way just like us.

1) Good Plot

Ok, now that you've spent time on making these interesting characters, they need to go do something. That something is called Plot. Plot is, quite simply, what happens. That's it. If all they do is meet, fight, and fall in love, then you've got every romantic comedy from Pride and Prejudice to 10 Things I Hate About You. But it's a Plot. If you want car chases, building explosions, thefts, murders, death-defying stuntwork, and mind-bending logic a la The Matrix or Inception - well, it's still called a Plot.

Some say that there are only a handful of plots (between 7 and 40, depending on which way you slice 'em), each with a thousand variations, and that may be true. Chances are you'll probably end up with one we've already seen before. But that's okay. The fact is, there must be one. So make it a good one.

3) Good Writing

I don't care who you are, if you can't string words together in a way that is pleasing to someone, somewhere, then what you write will never see the light of day. An ability to change word flow to accomodate action sequences, love, fright, high drama, and comedy, is what separates the masters from the mid-lists, and those who get published or produced from those who don't. And by the way, ignore grammar and spelling at your peril. There is a reason people invented them.

"Now, now," you're thinking, "I've read lots of books and seen lots of movies where the characters were good, but not a whole lot happened. Or where there was a lot of action, but the characters were bland. Or where both of those were good, but the writer couldn't tell his commas from a semi-colon." And that may be true. But let me tell you secret: there's a pattern here.

If you can do one of these things really well, and are moderately good at the other two, chances are that you will get published. (Look at poets - who can take an utter lack of anyone doing anything and elevate it into an art form.) And if you can do two of those things very well, and be decent at the third, then you'll probably make the mid-lists and maybe even the best-sellers. And if you can do all three well, then chances are you're about to hit the big-time.

But look at those authors who never make it to the big leaugues. Mid-list novelists (those who don't make exhorbitant amounts, but who do get published regularly) and most genre-fiction authors have got at least a decent grasp on two - but the third usually falls by the wayside. And that lack is what keeps them out of the top. Those one- or two-hit wonders - the authors who stay in the bottom ranks or who never manage to break in at all - have usually got, at best, a mediocre grasp on one of these rules and are lousy at the other two. Those who are horrible at all three? Possibly published as a subject of ridicule - but nobody wants to get made fun of. And it's risky to try and be that bad on purpose.

But do you want to know the funny, and sad, thing about all this? Every one of these rules of writing can be mastered. There is no writing gene which says you're either born with this talent or you're not, born to be a best-seller or you're not. There is nothing which dooms you to a writing life full of misery and despair. These are skills. They can be taught, and they can be learned. And the better you get at them, the more successful you will be.

Isn't it wonderful to know that the success of your writing career is at least partially in your own hands?